Hummingbird hawk moth, photo credit Charles J Sharp (2017)
Anyone not convinced that moths are every bit as beautiful or amazing as butterflies has surely never seen a hummingbird moth. It is exactly what it sounds like – a moth that looks like a hummingbird both in appearance and action. If you spot one, a first glance will likely leave you thinking you’re watching a hummingbird. It moves quickly from flower to flower, hovering over each one, then zips on to the next. In addition to hovering, it can fly forward, backward, and to the side, moving like a helicopter. Its wings beat so fast (up to 70 beats per second) they are a blur, which also creates the hum associated with hummingbirds. It may be brightly colored, too.
But if you look closely, you may begin to think again. This pollinator is smaller than a hummingbird, only 1-2 inches in length; hummingbirds, on the other hand are generally 3-4 inches long. If you’re still not convinced, look for antennae. Hummingbird moths will have two long, forward-facing antennae. And of course, there are the legs. Birds only have two and most will tuck up their legs during flight, but this insect has 6 legs that dangle beneath it as it flies.
Another thing to note about hummingbird moths is that do not have a beak. Instead, what may look like a beak is actually a long, thin tongue-like probiscis. It works like a hummingbird’s beak and allows them to get nectar out of flowers. Hummingbird moths roll this out when they are feeding and curl it up when they are not. Finally, the body type differs between bird and moth. The hummingbird moths are stouter than their avian counterparts. And, while hummingbirds have a variety of tails, these moths have short, blunt, fuzzy-looking tails. Differences aside, both the moth and the bird are fun to watch, and both are essential, effective pollinators.
Throughout the summer I’ve come across many moths and butterflies, each amazing in their own right. On one hike to a high alpine lake, a friend and I spent our lunch break watching a pair of moths with pale blue wings and dark spots. But were they moths? What’s the difference between a moth and a butterfly anyway?
Generally speaking butterflies are thought of as colorful and, well, beautiful, while moths are thought of as drab. A quick bit of research reveals that moths actually come in a great variety of colors and can be just as beautiful as any butterfly. One of the true differences between the two, though, is that moths tend to be nocturnal, and butterflies are diurnal. In addition, when resting, moths will usually flatten their wings against their bodies; butterflies, on the other hand, fold their wings up over their backs. And, if you get up close and personal with these insects, you’ll find that moths have antennae that are comb-like or feathery and butterflies have thin antennae with club-shaped tips.
Another interesting thing about our encounter was that they were on the ground – not just for a quick second, but throughout our lunch. Shouldn’t they have been on a flower? There certainly were a lot to choose from. As it turns out, butterflies will also consume nutrients, like salt, which is probably what our pair was doing.
Obviously, we were wrong – we were watching butterflies. Extensive research has led me to conclude that our butterflies were spring azure butterflies. Probably. There are a lot of nuances to butterfly identification I’ve learned.
One last thing I learned: there are many more species of moths than butterflies. There are approximately 160,000 different species of moths while only 11,000 species of butterflies in the world.
The boo-hoo flower is not it’s real name. But it is an appropriate nickname. The real name is Arctic gentian. It is a lovely goblet-shaped wildflower that grows in clusters, low to the ground in moist areas at or above tree line. It’s white with purple streaks and what I think of as freckles. Inside there are delicate pink stamen and a white stigma (yes, I had to look up “parts of a flower” to remember what all the parts are called!).
As with all wildflowers, I look forward to seeing them every year. People get their spiritual recharge in many places; I get mine on a summer hike to a high alpine lake surrounded by wildflowers. On a recent hike to a beautiful pair of lakes, we came across the Arctic gentian in full bloom.
The Arctic gentian, though, is a harbinger of what’s to come…winter. It is one of the summer season’s latest bloomers. Rangers nicknamed it the boo-hoo flower because it is a sign that the all-too-short alpine summer is almost over. So its sighting is bittersweet. But alas all good things must come to an end. It will make me even more grateful to see the first pasqueflowers and glacier lilies in the spring.
I feel that I would be remiss if I did not give this word the attention it deserves. Years ago on a hot, hot summer day, I saw a squirrel splayed out on our picnic table in the shade…front legs forward, back legs backward, stomach flat on the table. My first thought was to wonder if it was okay. But then I guessed it was probably just hot and was likely just trying to stay cool.
I have now learned that there’s a word for that…splooting!
Animals stretch out like that on cool surfaces to try to reduce body heat. Some use the scientific term, “heat dumping” or “thermoregulation.” I prefer splooting. I have recently seen the neighborhood rabbits splooting (because it is STILL hot outside). According to the National Park Service, this is referred to as, “sploot season.”
Apparently marmots, bears, chipmunks, and other mammals sploot too. And splooting isn’t just for wild animals – pets sploot! Corgis are especially well-known for this (who knew?). Technically, if you were too sprawl out in an effort to cool off, you’d be splooting too. After all, it is sploot season.